Hell On Wheels has never quite known what to do with Durant, especially in the second season. That’s particularly bizarre considering Durant actually broke the fourth wall during the pilot to tell the audience exactly what role he would play in this drama: “Is it a villain you want? I’ll play the part… I will be remembered as a caitiff, a malefactor, a lone wolf who operated out of greed for pure personal gain. All true, all true, but remember this: Without me and men like me, your glorious railroad would never be built.” He cast himself in larger-than-life terms (complete with a tangled metaphor about lions and zebras I’ve mercifully omitted) and that’s left him increasingly marooned from the main action as the show has tightened its focus and ditched the behind-the-scenes railroad politicking.
For all his supposed villainy, Durant has been an uneasy ally to Bohannon, a broadly tolerant benefactor to Elam, and an occasionally decent partner in business and in bed to Lily. Bohannon and Elam have gone off and found their own nemeses in the Swede and Mr. Toole, respectively—not to mention their shared flair for self-destruction—while Lily has more often than not come out the winner in her conflicts with Durant. And now, the decision to shoot Durant and sideline him for the better part of three episodes has coincided with an unexpected creative upswing for Hell On Wheels, so the big question for Durant heading into “The Lord’s Day” is whether he’s surplus to requirements. The episode makes a resounding case for Durant’s continued presence on the show by reaffirming his place as the central antagonist, with a little help from special guest star Virginia Madsen as Mrs. Hannah Durant.
“The Lord’s Day” follows Durant’s return to camp after his recuperation in Chicago. It’s clear the camp has been operating on the assumption that he wasn’t coming back—Lily and Bohannon are still carrying on their affair (leaving aside the minor detail that the coupling of Lily and Durant was itself an affair), Sean McGinnes doesn’t have the money he owes Durant because of his play for the saloon, and Elam is still intent on quitting the railroad and building a house by the river. Episode director Rod Lurie ratchets up the tension in anticipation of Durant’s return, and the ominous musical score suggests nothing less than an invading army is about to storm the camp. Once Durant arrives, his cane-assisted walk from the train to his office is treated as a Herculean struggle, and he stops midway to issue a barely veiled threat to the clearly scheming Sean McGinnes. The scene simultaneously depicts Durant as a weakened, possibly delirious victim and, as he implicitly suggests, a tiger about to devour anyone foolish enough to approach him. The show’s craftsmanship has progressed enough in the last couple weeks that this reads as ambiguous, rather than just muddled. As in previous episodes, Durant is never as fully villainous as he seems to think himself to be. But this time, the villainous side is still clearly on display.
The casting of Virginia Madsen as Durant’s wife is a masterstroke, partially because she adds some much-needed reinforcement to the cast’s acting chops, but also because of the moment where she and Lily first encounter each other. Particularly in that moment, she looks spookily like an older Dominique McElligott, adding an unexpected extra level of creepiness to Durant and Lily’s affair. Hannah is every bit the ruthless schemer her husband is, and at least in this episode they are working to the same purpose. Specifically, they’re out to destroy Lily’s life—and, depending on your interpretation of what Elam is talking about in the last scene with Bohannon, possibly end it as well. Hannah is clearly out for a little vengeance on Lily for her husband’s infidelity, but the calculation is far more heartless logic than vindictive emotion. As she points out to her husband, Lily likely knows about their fraudulent bookkeeping, and so leaving her in any position of authority is dangerous. Admittedly, the logic of this seems a little off—after all, if they’re looking to keep Lily contained as a threat, sending her away from camp seems like the exact wrong thing to do. But again, it’s entirely possible the Durants mean to get Lily out of the way permanently.
The twin scenes where first Durant and then Hannah get the better of Lily are highlights of the episode, as they take the show’s well-documented penchant for nastiness and put it to perfect use. Durant manages the neat trick of taking the moral high ground with his former mistress, angrily informing her that he knows about her own affair with Bohannon, whereas Hannah actually apologizes for her husband’s temper before kicking Lily out of her home with infinitely more cruelty. All of a sudden, Hell On Wheels has established a pair of formidable villains, and neither Lily nor Bohannon know quite what to make of their new situation. The episode also reincorporates Cullen’s background in Meridian with surprising deftness, as it’s revealed the Durants are old friends of the father of Bohannon’s dead wife. Again, the scene plays out ambiguously—Hannah is either pretending to be thoughtless in her questioning of Bohannon to put him on the defensive, or she really doesn’t care about dredging up the memories of a clearly tormented man. Either way, Bohannon isn’t as obviously rattled as Lily is, but he still recognizes just how much of a wild card Mrs. Durant really is
In the midst of all this relatively civilized villainy, the Swede is still going around crazily messing up people’s shit. In tonight’s installment, he sabotages the steam engine used to build the bridge over the gorge, severely injuring and probably killing a bunch of railroad workers. Bohannon knows who’s behind the sabotage even before Mr. Toole discovers its source—a Norwegian coin, because the Swede wants Bohannon to know that his reign of terror has officially begun. It’s a good development, but future episodes need to follow through on this bold move. After all, the Swede has now declared war not just on Bohannon but the entire railroad, so this surely can’t remain a private conflict between the two of them for much longer. Then again, any subplot that resolves with Bohannon nonchalantly burning down his enemy’s tent is alright in my book.
The episode even manages to make good use of Joseph in his brief return. Eddie Spears is one of the more limited actors in the ensemble, but he does a decent job playing righteously pissed off, and he gets to do plenty of that in his scene with Ruth. Having abandoned Christianity for his Cheyenne heritage, Joseph angrily warns Ruth that she will die if she remains in the camp. It’s not a threat, but rather a justifiably cynical analysis of what is left for her here. He’s proven essentially correct with phenomenal speed, as Sean McGinnes drunkenly ambushes Ruth and demands the truth about her relationship with Joseph. It’s a dark scene, one in which Sean seems entirely capable of murdering her… or worse. The Sean and Ruth subplot has been sputtering along all season, but this unnerving new development snaps their situation forcefully into place. It’s a minor story, but its treatment of Sean, Ruth, and Joseph illustrates the larger secret about the show’s sudden success. At last, Hell On Wheels has decided who its characters are, and the show now trusts its characters enough to drive the storytelling rather than relying on a series of contrived incidents. The result has been a pair of legitimately good episodes, and I’m distinctly hopeful for next week’s two-hour season—and quite possibly series—finale. It just should never have taken this long for it to all to come together.
- It seems Mr. Toole really isn’t all that much of a bastard anymore, even if his brother in New York still is. Eva seems genuinely fond of him in a way she hasn’t before, which probably means this is the wrong time for Elam to decide he wants to raise his son after all.
- That said, who wouldn’t want intentionally bad advice from their Uncle Psalms?
- Although the character work has unquestionably taken a huge leap forward these past couple of episodes, Mickey’s descent into drunkenness doesn’t feel especially well-motivated. It’s probably a delayed reaction from the death of his favorite prostitute, but the intervening episodes didn’t really lay much foundation for this.